I was never terribly won over by the novels of D.H. Lawrence, and Out of Sheer Rage is not making me change my mind about that, but it is interesting me in Lawrence’s other works, his letters and criticism.
(I was trying to trick you with my post title into believing that I’d finally moved on to something besides Out of Sheer Rage, but I haven’t — sorry! I will post about something else soon — the Elizabeth Bowen novel I just finished, for example.)
Geoff Dyer himself feels ambivalently about Lawrence’s novels; he knows he should re-read them for his book, but he really can’t bear to, and so he doesn’t. It’s not that he disliked them that much; it’s just that he has no desire to re-read them. Instead, he’d rather read more in the other material — the notes to the great works rather than the great works themselves:
As time goes by we drift away from the great texts, the finished works on which an author’s reputation is built, towards the journals, diaries, letters, manuscripts, jottings. This is not simply because, as an author’s stature grows posthumously, the fund of published texts becomes exhausted and we have to make do not only with previously unpublished or unfinished material but, increasingly, with matter that was never intended for publication. It is also because we want to get nearer to the man or woman who wrote these books, to his or her being …. A curious reversal takes place. The finished works serve as prologue to the jottings; the published book becomes a stage to be passed through — a draft — en route to the definitive pleasure of the notes, the fleeting impressions, the sketches, in which it had its origin.
I have not experienced this myself, or perhaps I haven’t yet reached that stage, except possibly in the case of Virginia Woolf, but I do find what he has to say about Lawrence’s notes and letters intriguing. He quotes from Lawrence’s wife Frieda to explain his attraction to these more ephemeral forms of writing:
“Since Lawrence died, all these donkeys years already, he has grown and grown for me … To me his relationship, his bond with everything in creation was so amazing, no preconceived ideas, just a meeting between him and a creature, a tree, a cloud, anything. I called it love, but it was something else — Bejahung in German, ‘saying yes’.”
Dyer goes on to write that he finds this “saying yes” most clearly in Lawrence’s letters — it exists in the novels but comes through most excitingly elsewhere. There’s something about Lawrence’s writing that makes a reader wish to have known him, in a way no one, he says, really wishes to have known E.M. Forster.
Dyer then connects these ideas about Lawrence’s notes and letters to his own writing:
If this book aspires to the condition of notes that is because, for me, Lawrence’s prose is at its best when it comes closest to notes.
I do like this reversal of the traditional genre hierarchies, the “rules” that say that novels are more important and literary than letters and certainly more so than notes. I love the idea of aspiring to the condition of notes and would say that Out of Sheer Rage does have a note or letter-like quality; the ideas are developed, yes, but there is a rambling nature to the book, a spontaneity that you don’t often find in nonfiction.
Dyer gives Lawrence’s book Sea and Sardinia as an example of fine Lawrentian prose; Lawrence took no notes while visiting Sardinia, and wrote his book a few weeks afterwards based on memories:
The lack of notes, in other words, accounts for the book’s note-like immediacy. Notes taken at the time, on the move, and referred to later … would have come between the experience and the writing. As it is, everything is written — rather than noted and then written — as experienced. The experience is created in the writing rather than re-created from notes. Reading it, you are drenched in a spray of ideas that never lets up. Impressions are experienced as ideas, ideas are glimpsed like fields through a train window, one after another. Opinions erupt into ideas, argument is conveyed as sensation, sensations are felt as argument.
I wonder about this, actually — couldn’t it be the case that writing that seems the most spontaneous and impressionistic might be the writing the author most labored over? Wouldn’t spontaneity more likely be an illusion than a reality? I wonder if Lawrence really wrote the book in the way Dyer describes, and if, in fact, Dyer really wrote his book the way these passages imply he might have — carelessly, lazily, on-the-fly. Perhaps he labored over every transition, every seemingly-spontaneous and emotion-filled fragment and exclamation point.
At any rate, Dyer closes this particular section with an intriguing paragraph:
“A book which is not a copy of other books has its own construction,” warned Lawrence and the kind of novels I like are ones which bear no traces of being novels. Which is why the novelists I like best are, with the exception of the last-named, not novelists at all: Nietzsche, the Goncourt brothers, Barthes, Fernando Pessoa, Ryszard Kapuscindki, Thomas Bernhard …
A future reading list perhaps?